Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco is a moral comedy set in a hedonistic worldby Sameer Rahim / February 9, 2016 / Leave a comment
Of all the places to set a social comedy in the style of Jane Austen, perhaps the last would be a disco in early 1980s New York. But 18 years ago, the American writer-director Whit Stillman did exactly that with his wonderfully funny and acute The Last Days of Disco. Stillman’s first film Metropolitan (1990) followed the tangled love lives of a group of intelligent and idealistic New Yorkers. Filmed on a shoe-string, it was nominated for an Oscar. His next film Barcelona (1994) transplanted similar members of the self-described UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) to Europe. The Last Days of Disco is the third in his trilogy of these “comedies of mannerlessness,” as Stillman has called them. On Saturday there was a showing at the Barbican, followed by a Q&A with Stillman and actor/director Richard Ayoyade.
Stillman has been characterised as a Wasp Woody Allen. There are some similarities between the directors. Stillman’s films are talkative and witty, like Allen’s, and are usually set in a closed milieux the director knows well—in Stillman’s case the Harvard-educated upper classes. But the moral texture of his films are quite different. Allen embraces a liberal, humanistic worldview in which the sexual revolution is a joyful—though complex—achievement. By contrast, Stillman is sceptical of the sexual revolution, is impatient with liberal pieties, and retains a faith in the power of grace. One critic has even called him a “Great Conservative Filmmaker.” That’s going too far: he is too subtle a filmmaker to advocate a political ideology. Yet it is undeniable that for his characters concepts such as “moral virtue,” “character,” “gentlemanliness” and “self-restraint” are far from outdated ideals.
The Last Days of Disco follows two young women fresh out of college: the gauche Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and the confident Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Surveying the dancing masses at the disco, Charlotte says to Alice: “We’re in complete control. Look down: there’s a lot of choices out there.” Like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse does with Harriet Smith, the worldly-wise Charlotte advises Alice how to find a partner. She should drop the Kindergarten teacher look, she says, and stop being so “moralistic and judgmental.” She should make herself more attractive to guys by…